When I left Ireland in 1993 for Cambodia, the troubles in Northern Ireland were still inflicting murder and mayhem on both the Unionist and Nationalist communities there. The media were constantly reporting on brutal atrocities followed by funerals, both Protestant and Catholic.
When the peace process finally produced the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 thus ending the violent hostilities, I counted it as one of the most extraordinary miracles that I have witnessed in my lifetime. I could never quite understand how Dr Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness could subsequently cooperate together in the governance of Northern Ireland while becoming “chucklers” into the bargain.
The Republic of Ireland has also changed beyond recognition over the thirty years that I have been away. Gay marriage, legalised abortion and the turning away from the Catholic Church that happened in response to the clerical sexual abuse crisis are only the outer manifestations of a profound transformation of inner attitudes regarding social issues. Former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern once commented that there were three great “institutions” in Irish society, the Fianna Fáil party, the Catholic Church and the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association). Now only the GAA has weathered the storms and continues to thrive. The recent RTE (Raidió Telefís Ēireann) program on “New Gaels”, shows why. I mean, even my seven-year old niece is into Camogie.
On my last visit home to Dublin, I met the Protestant rector of my home parish on the 42 bus. He cheerfully informed me that this year the number of Church of Ireland ordinations to the priesthood exceeded the number of Roman Catholic ordinations in the Dublin diocese for the first time since who knows when.
In order to try to fill in the gaps in my understanding of how the island of Ireland has changed over the last 30 years, I have read three books; Seamus Mallon’s autobiography, “A Shared Home Place’; “Say Nothing” by Patrick Radden Keefe which follows the personal stories of those involved in the abduction and murder in 1972 of Belfast woman, and mother of ten children, Jean McConville; and “The Education of an Idealist” by Samantha Power, the Irishwoman who worked as the US Ambassador to the UN under President Obama.
In the first book, Seamus Mallon traces his political journey as SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) councillor and MP (Member of Parliament) with laconic wit and honesty. He remembers all the killings and murders in his own area and attends all funerals both Protestant and Catholic even when his presence is not welcomed. His story is one of perseverance and courage in a time of despair lived out over a life-time. He is vilified and persecuted at different times by militant Nationalists and by militant Unionists who speak the language of hate. He never flinches. Even the title of his book “A Shared Home Place” demonstrates his commitment to peace and harmony. He articulates “parallel consensus” as a political principle to guide future discussions about the future status of the society in Northern Ireland. Only when both Unionist and Nationalist communities agree on a way forward, can there be a way forward. I sense that my Protestant forbears would concur.
In the second book, Patrick Radden Keefe, amasses a wealth of historical detail to weave together a tapestry of characters involved in the IRA (Irish Republican Army) of West Belfast. By focusing on the Price Sisters, Dolours and Marian, Keefe is able to link, personalities, events and stories together over a period of nearly fifty years. The Loyalist characters and British officials offer an alternative viewpoint throughout the narrative so it seems balanced in the end. The wonder of the book is in fact the person of Dolours Price who listens to her conscience and instead of “saying nothing”, says something. The something is not much, mind you, but Keefe follows each thread right to its end. He solves the mystery that the police force could not solve (the abduction and murder of Jean McConville). The fact that certain key characters refuse to recognise the truth about what they did in the past, means that they lock themselves into their own world. It’s the world of the living dead. No character in this long story is able to speak of forgiveness like Timothy Knatchbull did in his story “From a Clear Blue Sky”.
In the third book, Samantha Power, describes leaving Ireland while still a primary school student as her mother launches out into a new life in America away from her alcoholic father. Samantha’s candid love of both father and mother enable her to negotiate the family tragedies cheerfully. She makes a new life for herself each time her new family moves. During a trip abroad she discovers an interest in finding out the truth about conflicts that cause suffering to many people. She spends time in war-torn Bosnia and learns how American political action can help or hinder the peace-process. She returns to study Law and becomes involved in political action. However it is the description of her time as US Ambassador to the UN, while remaining a dedicated mother of two kids, which is the most interesting. She moves from crisis to crisis. Syria, ISIS, Ukraine, Ebola, etc.
Power has a simple honesty which makes these complicated situations and issues easy to grasp. While her account is personal, it does not seem self-serving and she is able to learn from her mistakes. It is also interesting that for someone dedicated to dialogue for peace, the one outstanding regret regarding the Obama administration that she voices is the decision not to strike Syrian military targets after the regime used Sarin gas on the population of Aleppo in March 2013 until the US Congress approved such strikes. They crossed the “red line” and nothing happened.
In a funny example of Democratic dis-connect, Power describes the house party she arranged for all the female ambassadors at the UN in her home on election night to celebrate the upcoming victory of Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. She was not the only one who got it wrong.
These three books witness to the enormous transformations that Ireland has experienced over the last thirty years. However a few long hikes up Lugnaquilla and Mullaghcleevaun in the Wicklow mountains have allowed me to savour the beauty and tranquility of what has not changed. It will be a challenge to find the right words to speak to the new spiritual language being whispered here and there.